06 September 2009

One Important Way That I Am Not Like Glenn Beck

I am not like Glenn Beck. That that is true in all sorts of ways. But, perhaps the most important of those is that I am not certain. I know a lot of things and am confident about that knowledge. I'll come back to some of the things I know in a minute. For now, I simply want to say that there are lots of things I don't know. And I am willing to concede that among the things I am pretty confident about, some may turn out to be wrong. Glenn, by contrast, is certain. That is a pretty important difference.

You may be wondering what prompts me to make this comparison. Well, according to this report, which I found via The Huffington Post, Beck is out to get a number of Obama appointees, including Cass Sunstein who has been nominated to direct head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Republicans in the Senate have delayed Sunstein's nomination - like many of Obama's choices for senior administration posts* - via a variety of procedural gambits. Apparently, Sunstein's nomination will finally be coming before the full Senate this week. That leads me to a few things I know.

First, I met Cass Sunstein when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1980s. I know that we disagree about a lot of things. I also know that he is a smart and decent man. But enough of that. Sunstein hardly needs me as a character reference. Nor, however, does he need to defend himself in the sort of frenzied sideshow that Glenn Beck is trying to orchestrate.

Second, I know that Sunstein is right about at least one thing. We make choices under particular descriptions. This is hardly an earth-shattering revelation. Indeed, it is well established that the way a choice is described can have a considerable impact on the way people decide to act. This is important because much of the hoop-la over "behavioral economics" boils down to the simple not-so-earth-shattering recognition that we necessarily choose under some description. And Sunstein has been bitten by the behavioral economics bug. That is among the things about which we disagree. While I believe the commonplace observation is, well, commonplace, I don't follow the path toward behavioral experimentation. In any case, the commonplace is what seems to have gotten Glenn's knickers in a knot about Sunstein.

Third, I know what it is like to have to make a decision about whether or not to donate a loved one's organs for transplant. When my 14 year old son died two and a half years ago, one of the most excruciating conversations I had was with the young resident who drew the short straw and had to ask whether we would consider donating Jeff's organs. The conversation was excruciating because of the young resident's discomfort. The decision to donate Jeff's organs was a no-brainer. His heart still beats. His liver and kidneys and corneas and lungs and pancreas are still keeping a bunch of people alive who otherwise would likely be dead.

This knowledge is relevant insofar as Sunstein has written about the benefits of a 'presumed consent' regime for making decisions about organ transplants. On such a regime, individuals would explicitly have to 'opt out' of a donation scheme. In the event they died, medical personnel would presume that they would want to donate their organs. Their surviving relatives would still need to agree to having the organs harvested for transplant. But there would be less ambiguity about what the deceased person would have wanted. Jeff, of course, was just a kid. So the scheme would not probably have applied when he died. But I know what he would have wanted. His mother knew as well. That said, I think the 'opt out' scheme is sensible. It would mitigate uncertainty. Unless the deceased person had explicitly indicated they did not want to be an organ donor, they would be treated as one.

Finally, I know that it is craven and disgusting for Beck (and others on the right) to be politicizing the sort of decision I had to make about Jeff's organs. I think Sunstein's basic claim is correct - how the decisions people face at such moments are framed effects their choices. We choose under descriptions. And his prescription - namely that we ought, as a matter of policy, to insist on describing the choice about whether to donate organs of our deceased loved ones in ways that render it easier to say 'yes' is, it seems to me, not just sensible, but right. Having never faced that choice, Glenn Beck ought to simply stop talking. He ought to entertain the possibility that he is wrong. Fat chance.
* "Out of 543 positions in the upper ranks of government, only 236, or 43 per cent, have been confirmed by the Senate, according to the White House Transition Project. A further 83 are awaiting confirmation" (source).

** To listen to Beck, one would think Sunstein were a wild-eyed lunatic on this issue. My understanding is that Austria, France and Spain operate under a presumed consent regime while Britain is currently debating whether to move to one. While the issue of consent is not the only one that bedevils the availability and distribution of organs for transplantation, it seems to me an important one (link).

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Blogger Paul Gowder said...

What's particularly bizarre is that Sunstein isn't exactly some radical. Hell, I think of him as fairly right-wing, as people who rational people can have some hope of communicating with go. Why on earth would Beck get a bug up his ass about Sunstein?

06 September, 2009 23:53  
Blogger Dan R said...


This interests me greatly as it says a lot about perception and how our decisions are influenced and manipulated.

Is making decisions under particular descriptions an issue widely explored? I'm sure it has as it can be taken very broadly or focused on specific issues. Can you point me to others who have written on or explored this further? Hope you're doing well.

Dan Rosenbaum

12 September, 2009 18:08  

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